Russia's biggest moment in the Olympic spotlight this year was also its most embarrassing: Figure skater Evgeni Plushenko's 'we wuz robbed' act after being awarded the silver medal in Vancouver. Plushenko, who won gold in the 2006 Turin Olympics, slammed this years gold medalist, American Evan Lysacek, as undeserving because he did not attempt a quadruple jump despite a widespread consensus among sports commentators that Lysacek's flawlessly performed program was superior in a number of ways.
Plushenko's unsportsmanlike petulance, backed by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, had a bizarre postscript: a television host at a Russian TV studio in Vancouver awarded the skater a platinum medal. The image of a medal with the words Platinum of Vancouver underneath then appeared on the home page of Plushenko's Web site, next to Gold from Turin and Silver from Salt Lake City, though, after public ridicule, all the labels were removed.
No fake medal can cover up Russias overall lackluster performance: 11th place in the overall medal tally and only three gold medals, a humiliating finish for a nation long accustomed to Olympic glory. Russian politicians and the press have been wringing their hands over this tragedy.
Speaking on national television, President Dmitry Medvedev declared that those responsible for the Russian team's Olympic training should make a "courageous decision" and hand in their resignations, or they would be helped along. Meanwhile, Russia's top sports officials are already blaming each other for the fiasco.
Russia's Olympic anxiety is exacerbated by the fact that in 2014, it hosts the Winter Olympics in Sochi. Touted as a source of great national pride, this upcoming event is also the source of many worries about Russia's ability to build the Olympic facilities on schedule, about the massive cost overruns, about the location's proximity to trouble spots in the Caucasus. To that, add anxieties about a possible major embarrassment for Russian athletes on their home turf.
Leonid Tyagachyov, head of the Russian Olympic Committee, resigned Wednesday. Sports minister Vitaly Mutko also reportedly already decided to step down from his post. But Mutko has made comments implying that the Russian team's showing in Sochi is unlikely to be better than this year's results. Upon his return from Vancouver, Mutko told journalists that grooming a new generation of Olympians is a task that has only just begun in post-Soviet Russia, and one that is likely to take six to eight years. When a major Russian newspaper, Moskovskiy Komsomolets, posted a poll on its Web site asking what could help Russia achieve victory in the 2014 Olympics, 49 percent of the respondents picked the answer: Nothing can help at this point.
Some commentators in Russia's still-flourishing independent press are looking to the Olympics for different lessons.
"I wish we held the coveted [11th] place in the world in at least one thing that really matters," journalist Leonid Radzikhovsky wrote in his blog on the Web site of the Ekho Moskvy radio station. "In life expectancy, for instance, or per capita income, or the levels of corruption No such luck! The best we can manage is No. 20 or even No. 70."
Radzikhovsky concludes that to build up big sports in a country with a pauperized population is criminal imperial frivolity, generally needed for the deception of these very same paupers. His sentiment is echoed by Moskovsky Komsomolet's columnist Alexander Minkin, who points out that Russia ranks 139th on some world indexes of democracy and is near the bottom of world rankings for rule of law.
Meanwhile, Boris Gryzlov, the chairman of the Russian parliament, has lamented the lack of victories in Vancouver, saying that if one were to speak of the Russian national ideal, it is, among other things, to be first, always and everywhere.
If athletics do represent the national spirit, then perhaps the Plushenko saga, with its grievances and delusions of grandeur, really does represent modern-day Russia in a nutshell.
Cathy Young writes a weekly column for RealClearPolitics and is also a contributing editor at Reason magazine. She blogs at http://cathyyoung.wordpress.com/. This article originally appeared at RealClearSports. This column first appeared at Reason.com.